Androgens in Cushing's Syndrome

Front Horm Res. 2019:53:77-91. doi: 10.1159/000494904. Epub 2019 Sep 9.


Although polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common androgen excess disorder, screening for Cushing's Syndrome (CS) should be considered in women with PCOS phenotype, particularly if they are also affected by other disturbances that increase their pretest probability (e.g., osteoporosis/bone fractures). Approximately 70-80% of women with CS present menstrual abnormalities, and PCOS findings are found in 46% of these patients. Diagnostic efforts should strengthen if the clinical picture is severe or of rapid onset in order to ensure the earliest and most appropriate treatment. If the diagnosis of CS is challenging, its differentiation from PCOS is not outdone: isolated PCOS may be associated to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis disruption, leading to false-positive results in screening tests. Because of this overlap, the diagnosis of CS is initially missed or delayed. Diagnostic utility of serum androgen assessment is controversial, but the widespread use of high-performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry for urinary steroid profiling is showing promising results. According to the role of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in adrenal androgen secretion, it is not surprising that the levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate, and androstenedione (A4) are generally elevated or in the upper normal range in patients with ACTH-dependent CS. Conversely, adrenal androgens are generally low in patients with cortisol-secreting adrenocortical adenoma. However, androgen-secreting adrenal tumors (adenoma and carcinoma) can be also associated with severe hyperandrogenism. Regression of hypercortisolism after treatment causes disappearance of hyperandrogenism. However, signs of androgen excess may be detectable in well-controlled CS as a result of ACTH compensatory response to certain adrenal steroidogenesis inhibitors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / metabolism*
  • Androgens / metabolism*
  • Comorbidity
  • Cushing Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Cushing Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Cushing Syndrome / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / diagnosis
  • Hyperandrogenism / epidemiology
  • Hyperandrogenism / metabolism*
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / metabolism*


  • Androgens
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone